As I reflected on President Barack Obama’s long overdue endorsement of gay marriage earlier this week, my own thoughts drifted back to my friend Paul and a 2001 incident that taught me unqualified love has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
The incident began with someone pounding forcefully on the front door of my loft in downtown Omaha, Neb., at about 3 a.m. There was a desperation to the sound that reverberated through the open three-story space. It was different and distinct from the authoritative hammering of a police officer, the rushed knock of a prankster, or the frantic pounding of a drunk or addict.
We experienced all three from time to time in Omaha’s trendy Old Market. The downtown entertainment district was a magnet for gays, progressives, potheads and strong individualists fleeing the numbing conformity of the surrounding rural area, where transsexual Teena Renae Brandon (left) was raped and murdered in a 1993 attack that inspired the film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
“Who is it,” I shouted, stumbling down the stairs from the second-story platform that served as my bedroom.
“It’s Paul,” my huge gay neighbor responded with a sob.
The former physique model, singer and Broadway actor combined a powerful build with an almost desperate desire to be beautiful, creative and supportive toward anyone who would let him. He was a generous soul and supportive friend.
I surged forward, stubbing a toe and fumbling for the locks with a curse. Then-girlfriend Kathryn was right behind me. Paul (not his real name) ran toward us as soon as the door opened, collapsing in our arms like a six-foot-tall wave of muscle.
Paul’s distress was even more alarming because he’s a perpetual optimist. The kind of person who routinely and irritatingly advises the cynical to “turn that frown upside down.”
I’ve never seen him cry before or since. He has the courage and coping skills typical of openly gay Americans. Back then, he also had the barrel-chested build of former professional wrestler Ivan Putski, who was often on television when I was a kid in the 1970s.
Now Paul was crying. Heartbroken. Frantic. Desperate. Hopeless.
“It’s Carter,” he stammered between sobs. “We had a fight.”
“Oh sweetie,” Kathryn said supportively, patting his heaving back. “That’s terrible.”
The aging, fearful, and insulated conservative wing of the Republican Party would have responded to the tumult at the front door by hiding inside and calling the cops in my stead. Obama likely would have told Paul to come back at a more opportune time, which is essentially the stalling tactic he employed toward gay marriage after taking office in 2008.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that the time was suitable for Obama to do the right thing.
“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told ABC News on Wednesday. It’s important to “treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
No word on timing. No word on why it took Obama nearly three years to do the right thing and help a friend in need. No word on the wet finger he had suspended in the air of public opinion for so long instead of acting like the compassionate, courageous leader people thought they had elected.
Paul and Carter asked if I needed some help, using the deep straight voice many gay men employ in public. I declined, even as I performed the unconscious mental calculus needed to determine that either musclehead could probably beat the hell out of me. Were they so inclined.
Paul and I became close friends over the ensuing weeks after discovering a shared affinity for personal scrappiness, compassion for others, and a willingness to judge people by the content of their individual character rather than group traits.
I wasn’t certain he and Carter were gay until they invited Kathryn and me to dine with them in a loft that had been lovingly decorated in what can only be described as a “Robert Mapplethorpe” motif, in deference to the outrageous homoerotic artist (below right) who died in 1989 of complications arising from AIDS. There were paintings, photos and sculptures of peepees everywhere.
This is the part of the story where those of you who are insecure about your sexual orientation might want to run for cover. Confirmed gays and straights, read on.
The images were a little shocking at first. However, I love good company and good cooks, and I respect strong men. They were all three.
Partly as a result of all the free meals, I quickly grew accustomed to their lifestyle.
So much so that I thought nothing years later of pointing at a phallic image and loudly and sacastically declaring “look Paul, it’s the one photo of cock in the world you don’t have” as we stood inside a gay bookstore in DC.
Paul enjoyed testing me to see if I’d blanch in the face of his sometimes shocking alternative lifestyle. So, when he said he wanted to pop inside the gay bookstore as we were walking past it I rose to the challenge.
The proprietor and several patrons nodded approvingly at the wisecrack, smiling as if Paul and I were characters in one of the old interracial buddy films of the 1980s. When Hollywood still considered friendships between blacks and whites novel and notable.
In our case, we were more like a living, breathing, joking, buddy film for gays and straights.
The Bronx was la lawless place at that time. So, I knew better than anyone just how big a pair of big brass balls it took to do what Paul had done.
He was more than my equal as a man.
Paul is the kind of person who is more concerned with doing right than being right. He liked to feed me too, which seems to be a common trait among gay men.
“What’s not to like,” I thought.
My friendship with this openly gay man wasn’t just about Paul. It was also about me.
His presence in my life is a standing challenge to my own manhood. Not to my sexual orientation, but to whether I possess the physical and emotional strength to stand up for an openly gay friend.
I was raised to believe that anyone who insults my relatives and close friends is insulting me, which is a central working class value in the Bronx. Openly gay men generate a lot of criticism.
So, the unspoken question for me was whether I would be man enough to continue to live my code with Paul as a close friend.
Paul was in his early 40s when we met and had been gay his entire life, which was no easy thing in his working class French Roman Catholic family. He kept his black hair cut short in a trendy style that framed a round cherubic face.
By contrast, Carter had only recently come out of the closet after living as a straight man for most of his 32 years. He was tall and rangy at 6’2″ and 210 pounds, with the kind of blonde hair and trim, athletic build gay men prize.
As a new addition to the openly gay community, Carter was also the proverbial “flavor of the month.” He was enjoying the attention a little too much and it wasn’t uncommon for him to flirt with other gay men as soon as Paul left the room.
Kathryn and I liked Carter, but we flat out loved Paul. We also disliked the abusive way Carter had begun treating him after a few drinks. It troubled us to see Paul hurt and the dustup that brought the heartbroken friend to our door had been brewing for months.
Still, we never expected to see the powerful, elegant, intelligent and controlled man brought so low. The experience of comforting him as he sobbed uncontrollably in our arms was akin to seeing your big brother grow old overnight.
“Carter was flirting with Chris again last night – you know how he’s been acting lately,” Paul stammered, gasping for breath. “And I confronted him about it and he said some terrible things to me – really hurtful, awful things. Then he slapped me.”
“Then what happened,” I asked, eyes alight. There are no freebies in the neighborhoods where I grew up.
“Oh, I slapped him back, and he went flying over the couch,” the huge man confessed, matter-of-factly. “It was terrible.”
“Good for you,” I said, nodding my approval. “Fuck him. He’s been needing a smack for a long time.”
“Don’t say that,” Kathryn said, shooting me a look.
“He cursed me out,” Paul said, wiping his face. “He said some terrible things. He told me I was old and ugly and he was young and beautiful.”
“Fuck him,” I said.
“Then he got up and slapped me again,” Paul said.
“Then what happened,” I asked expectantly.
“Well, I hit him again,” Paul said.
“Good for you,” I said, drawing another look of condemnation from the fairer sex.
“Open hand or closed fist?” I asked.
“I think the first one was open,” Paul said analytically. “The second was closed and it sent him flying across the room like a ragdoll.”
“Fuck with the bull you get the horns,” I quipped supportively. “Then what happened?”
“Well, he started cursing me again and calling me names,” Paul said.
“Did he try to slap you again?”
“No,” Paul said with a sigh and a half-stifled cry. “That’s when I left. I ran over here.”
Kathryn made a clucking sound and squeezed Paul’s arm.
“If I’d stayed there I would have killed him and I love him,” he said, tearing up again and burying his head in my shoulder. “I love him so much.”
“Fuck him,” I said. “If there’s a divorce, we’re taking custody of you. He’s on his own.”
Paul flashed me a distorted smile, then started crying again. His huge torso heaving with each sob.
“Oh my God, I think it’s over,” he choked out. “I think he’s going to leave me.”
Kathryn made more soothing sounds, patting Paul’s massive back as if he was a small child.
At that moment he looked nothing like the grinning fool who had fired bottle rockets and Roman candles at me just a month earlier during a huge July 4th party on our rooftop. I’d wobbled back and forth on the far side of the flat roof in the darkness with a big candle in my hands, drunkenly declaring “you can’t hit me – you have absolutely no chance of hitting me” as fireballs and rockets whizzed past and our friends and neighbors convulsed in laughter.
Paul also looked nothing like the proud and powerful man who had theatened one of my straight friends at a party after a poorly timed gay joke. The memory of having to push an angry James in one direction and my clueless friend in the other still makes me smile.
I wasn’t saving Paul from an ass whooping.
“He’s not playing around,” I warned the much smaller straight friend, who seemed to have trouble accepting the idea that anyone so intimidating could also be gay.
After a few weeks I became so accustomed to their lifestyle that I could name all the characters in the landmark series “Queer as Folk” by heart.
To see my friend suffering through such a terrible breakup tore me up.
“Come on Paul,” I said. “It’ll be OK. You’ll find somebody else.”
Paul was inconsolable.
“I’ll never find anyone like Carter again,” he stammered, shaking his head from side to side.
“Oh come on,” I said. “You’ll find somebody. The guys are gonna be falling over eachother to go out with you. They’re gonna be lining up.”
“You’re a catch,” Kathryn said supportively. “I’m sure there are already a lot of guys that like you.”
“You don’t understand,” Paul said in frustration, staring at us like an adult dealing with children as he acrefully weighed his next words.
“What’s there to understand?” I said. “Carter treats you like the bottom of his shoe.”
Paul shook his head from side to side, looking away.
“Carter has a really big cock,” he suddenly blurted out, collapsing in a cacophony of hysterical sobs and burying his face in my shoulder. “I’m never going to find anyone with a cock like that again.”
“Uh oh,” I thought, looking out over the unfamiliar social terrain which had just opened before me.
I ran through the drop-down screen of comforting responses in my head, searching frantically for something appropriate for “big-as-a-house gay friend crying like a 5-year-old because he’s afraid of losing a well endowed boyfriend.”
Nothing came to mind.
“In for a penny in for a pound,” I thought to myself.
Obama seemed to capture a bit of that mojo Wednesday, when he said that he thought same-sex couples should be able to marry. However, it’s the kind of thing he should have done years ago.
By waiting so long, he reduced himself to the same level as the political hookers that haunt the halls of Congress and K-Street lobbyist offices, where U.S. elected leaders and their staffers routinely auction the rest of us to the highest bidder.
In sum, it was a calculated and opportunistic move by Obama. A move which was clearly motivated by the rising tide of public outrage in reaction to the revelation that Republican challenger Mitt Romney had bullied gay classmates at an exclusive private school for boys in Michigan called the Cranbrook School.
It wasn’t the kind of principled move one would expect from the freshman senator who authored the 2006 bestseller called “The Audacity of Hope.”
Romney has come out against gay marriage, much as some conservative elected officials recently staked out a backward position against a women’s right to choose. Embracing the dated values of the 1950s and 60s in a bid to curry favor with wealthy political donors.
The Morman candidate, whose religion views homosexuality as a mental illness and opposes same-sex marriage, has also tried to indicate opposition to adoption by gay couples. Albeit without actually staking out a formal position that might cost him votes.
The kind of moral stands that voters on both sides of the political divide deserve on the issue of gay marriage are in short supply among Republicans and Dems. Instead of leaders charting a path to the greater good, we’ve got two men sniffing the political winds so they can discern the most popular course of action and pander to it.
That’s exactly what we don’t need right now at a time when public disgust with the avarice of the political class is nearing historic highs. An AP-GfK poll completed May 7 found that 78 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The other 22 percent live in nursing homes, the District of Columbia, and on the moon.
The painful truth is that if Obama was really a political seer he would have embraced gay marriage years ago. Instead of running sacred and trying to find common ground with the religious nuts and predatory business interests who back the politics of greed, intolerance and hate.
In sum, he would have opened that door at 3 a.m. to help a friend in need, right beside those of us who believe in taking care of our own.
If Obama had endorsed gay marriage years ago instead of equivocating he might have enjoyed the windfall political profits that come from doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. He might have won the goodwill of a gay community with a disproportionate amount of wealth and disposable income, and a history of outsized political activism, along with the respect of those of us in the straight community who have the courage to care about them.
Ultimately, I went with my gut that night in 2001 and opened the door, and I;m glad I did.
I remembered that what’s mine is mine and that my friendship and love is unqualified.
I didn’t call the cops or tell Paul to come back at a more convenient time.
I comforted him with the supportive words he needed to hear, rather than just those I was comfortable saying.
Even when the search for the right words took me to unfamiliar terrain.
“It’ll be OK,” I said after a long pause, patting Paul’s back as he sobbed in my arms. “There’ll be other big cocks. Come on Paul, stop crying. There’ll be other big cocks.”
Kathryn smiled discreetly at me, with a mixture of pride and amusement. Women just live to see their men suffer as we evolve. Provided, it’s only a little bit.
“You’ll find another big cock,” I reassured Paul, shaking my own head at the unlikely words, which seemed to comfort him. “You are gonna get some big cock.”
Paul started to smile too at the unlikely words.
Sometimes, that’s what doing the right thing is all about. It’s about accepting our fellow Americans as they are and finding a way to look out for them in their time of need, whether they be black, white, Asian, Latino, Jew, Christian, atheist, straight, gay, whatever.
And it’s about speaking up against those who are driven by their own fears to pillory gays and lesbians. As The Cynical Times did in January when religious intolerants attacked the Modern Family TV series for its positive representation of a gay couple.
Bottom line, these gay and lesbian Americans are our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and sons and daughters. They’re our friends and their battle for social equality is no different that the battle for racial equality of the 1960s and gender equality in the early 1900s.
In sum, they deserve our support. Not three years from now. Not tomorrow. Right here in the now.
When we deny them our timely help, we marginalize ourselves as well as them. We imply that we’re unmoved by the high rate of suicide among gay teens and the continuing violence against homosexuals of all ages. When what we’re really motivated by is our own fears of having to stand up for them.
You don’t have to be a genius to figure it all out.
Lehmon Donaldson understood what the struggle over alternative lifestyles was really about back in 1994, when I interviewed him for an article about rural transvestites. The 48-year-old resident of tiny Metter, Ga., was a devout Jehovah’s Witness who never attended college, but knew how to stand up for his son.
“I’m not going to turn my back on my children because of no religion,” Donaldson said with quiet dignity. “He wasn’t responsible for coming into this world – we brought him here – and we bear responsibility for what happens to him.”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d like to be on the right side of the social justice fracas over gays and lesbians – the side that embraces tolerance, love and understanding. In short, the same side as Lehmon Donaldson.
We all need to find the courage to open the door. Help a friend in need. Care for a struggling gay classmate, relative or neighbor, rather than demonize them as Romney did in his youth for being different.
We need to do the right thing and hope for the best, rather than wait until there’s something in it for us in return, like Obama.
Because we’re better than Obama, Romney and their fellow poltiicians. They haven’t done the right thing at the right time for the right reason for a very long time. In short, they’re the worst of us.
By contrast, many of these gay men and women are the best of us and we simply cannot afford to keep treating them like second-class citizens.
The painful truth is that the failing American empire desperately needs a generation of strong, principled, sacrificial leaders. The needlessly protracted battle over gay marriage is just another indication that we don’t have them.
What we do have is a pay-to-play government peopled with unpricipled political hookers who will do anything for the right price, even when that means putting foreign interests ahead of our national interest, indebting our children to for-profit colleges, and allowing multinational corporations to boost profit growth by destroying American jobs.
We should be talking about financial regulation and real tax reform that makes the Enrons and the Koch Brothers of this world pay their fair share and compete on a level playing field. Not who puts their peepee where.
That particular red herring should have been resolved years ago.
This story was updated May 15, 2012, to add a quote from Lehmon Donaldson and references to gay suicide and violence against gays in paragraphs 96-100.